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John Arbuthnot Fisher Fisher


FISHER, JOHN ARBUTHNOT FISHER, 1ST BARON (1841-1920), British admiral, was born on Jan. 25, 1841, and entered the navy in June 1854. He served in the Baltic during the Crimean War, and was engaged as midshipman in the "Highflyer," "Chesapeake" and "Furious," in the Chinese War, in the opera tions required by the occupations of Canton and of the Peiho forts in 1859. He became sub-lieutenant on Jan. 25, 186o, and lieutenant on Nov. 4 of the same year. The cessation of naval wars, at least of wars at sea in which the British navy had to take a part, after 186o, allowed few officers to gain distinction by actual services against the enemy. But they were provided with other ways of proving their ability by the sweeping revolution which transformed the construction, the armament, and the methods of propulsion of all the navies of the world, and with them the once accepted methods of combat. Lieutenant Fisher began his career as a commissioned officer in the year after the launching of the French "Gloire" had set going the long duel in construction between guns and armour. He early made his mark as a student of gunnery, and was promoted commander on Aug. 2, 1869, and captain on Oct. 3o, 18 7 4. In this rank he was chosen to serve as president of the committee appointed to revise "The Gunnery Manual of the Fleet." It was his already established reputation which pointed Captain Fisher out for the command of H.M.S. "Inflexible," a vessel which, as the representative of a type, had supplied matter for much discussion. As captain of the "Inflexible" he took part in the bombardment of Alexandria (July 11, 1882). The engagement was not arduous in itself, having been carried out against forts of inferior construction, indiffer ently armed, and worse garrisoned, but it supplied an opportunity for a display of gunnery, and it was conspicuous in the midst of a long naval peace. The `Inflexible" took a prominent part in the action, and her captain had the command of the naval brigade landed in Alexandria, where he adapted the ironclad train and commanded it in various skirmishes with the enemy. After the Egyptian campaign, he was, in succession, director of Naval Ordnance and Torpedoes (Oct. 1886-May 1891) ; A.D.C. to Queen Victoria (June 18, 1887-Aug. 2, 189o, at which date he be came rear-admiral) ; admiral superintendent of Portsmouth dock yard (1891-92) ; a lord commissioner of the navy and comptroller of the navy (1892-97) and vice-admiral (May 8, 1896) ; com mander-in-chief on the North American and West Indian station (1897). In 1899 he acted as naval expert at The Hague Peace Conference, and on July 1, 1899, was appointed commander-in chief in the Mediterranean. From the Mediterranean command, Admiral Fisher went again to the Admiralty as second sea lord in 1902, and became commander-in-chief at Portsmouth on Aug. 31, 1903, from which post he passed to that of first sea lord. Besides holding the foreign Khedivial and Osmanieh orders, he was created K.C.B. in 1894 and G.C.B. in 19o2. As first sea lord, during the years 1903-09, Sir John Fisher had a predomi pant influence in all the far-reaching measures of naval develop ment and internal reform; and he was also one of the committee, known as Lord Esher's committee, appointed in 1904 to report on the measures necessary to be taken to put the administration and organization of the British war offices on a sound footing. The changes in naval administration made under him were hotly criticised by his critics, who charged him with autocratic methods, and in 1906–o9 with undue subservience to the government's de sire for economy ; and whatever the efficiency of his own methods at the admiralty, the fact was undeniable that for the first time for very many years the navy suffered, as a service, from the party spirit which was aroused. It was notorious that Admiral Lord Charles Beresford in particular was acutely hostile to Sir John Fisher's administration ; and on his retirement in the spring of 1909 from the position of commander-in-chief of the Channel fleet, Lord Charles put his charges and complaints before the government, and an inquiry was held by a small committee under the Prime Minister. Its report, published in August, was in favour of the Admiralty, though it encouraged the belief that some important suggestions as to the organization of a naval "general staff" would take effect. On Nov. 9 Sir John Fisher was created a peer as Baron Fisher of Kilverstone, Norfolk. He retired from the Admiralty in Jan. 191o.

From 1910 until Oct. 1914 Lord Fisher remained in retire ment, although Winston Churchill, then first lord of the Admiralty, constantly consulted him and it was on Fisher's advice that Sir John Jellicoe was designated admiral of the Grand Fleet in the event of war. (It is noteworthy that at the time of the Agadir crisis, Fisher expressed to Lord Esher and others strong dis approval of the War Office plans involving Great Britain in extensive land operations in France.) Fisher was recalled as first sea lord in place of Prince Louis of Battenberg in the critical days at the end of Oct. 1914. The "Audacious" had been sunk, Cradock heavily defeated off Coro nel, German submarines were active and the measure to stop the flow of supplies into Germany were not effective. Fisher took the responsibility of weakening the British fleet in home waters and detached the "Invincible" and "Inflexible" to engage von Spee, with the result that a complete victory was gained in the battle of the Falkland Islands. To Fisher's boldness and realism again were due the new blockade policy and the laying of extensive mine fields. The association between Churchill and Fisher was most happy until it was broken by the Dardanelles enterprise. Fisher never liked it ; his preference was for a landing on the coast of Prussia in the Baltic and the employment of Russian troops against the heart of Germany. But he was over persuaded by Churchill into reluctant acquiescence to the initial efforts against the Dardanelles.

When, however, the first attempt to force the straits had failed, and German submarines had made their appearance in Turkish waters, and it seemed doubtful whether the demands of the French campaign would allow the British to send the neces sary reinforcements to the army in Gallipoli, Fisher felt that he could no longer continue to countenance the project of forcing the Dardanelles. At the War council of May 14, 1915 he had declared that "he was against the Dardanelles and had been all along." Churchill afterwards told him that it was not fair to obstruct necessary measures at the Dardanelles and then when things went wrong to turn round and say "I told you so, I was always against it." Fisher replied "I think you are right—it isn't fair." That night Churchill in order to encourage the entry of Italy into the War on the side of the Allies gave instructions that four cruisers should go to the Mediterranean 48 hours before the time arranged, and the minute was signed "First sea lord to see after action." That was the first document seen by Fisher on beginning work as usual at four o'clock next morning. He refused to serve with Churchill any more and resigned. His resignation coinciding with the crisis about high explosive shells, brought down the already shaken Liberal Government, and led to the formation of the first Coalition. The manner of his leaving the Admiralty became Fisher less than anything in his life, but his motives were neither personal nor unworthy. He felt that as things were he had lost his power of service; that he could only hamper the Dardanelles and be "unfair" to Churchill without influencing events in the direction which he felt was right.

Fisher did useful work later in the War as Chairman of the Inventions board, and when he died on July Io, 1920, at the fu neral in Westminster Abbey, the crowds felt that they were mourning the greatest British sailor since Nelson. Their reverence was the more remarkable because Fisher never commanded a fleet in action, nor, except the Falkland Islands, is any great victory at sea traceable to his direct inspiration. His enemies accused him of exaggerating the material side of naval power at the expense of the moral and intellectual. He was not good in the logical pre sentation of an argument ; he thought pictorially and the sequence of his ideas expressed themselves in a series of verbal explosions. But his prescience amounted at times almost to second-sight, and he had a genius for the burning phrase that lights up the truth from within. The most amazing quality of the man was that as he grew older he became more radical and revolutionary in his ideas. To the old man in 1919 his own Dreadnought of 13 years was a symbol of effete tradition; his slogan "Sack the lot" was not the prosecution of a personal vendetta against the Admiralty chiefs, but expressed his conviction that though the spirit was eternal, its forms were only made to be broken. He wrote two volumes of memoirs : Memories (1919) and Records (1919) ; somewhat scrappy and disorderly in composition but full of his glowing vitality. Fisher married, in 1866, Miss Kate Broughton, by whom he had one son and three daughters. (D. H. ; H. SM.)

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